A couple of years ago, cycling through a sleepy Dutch city, my friends and I came across one of Google’s signature Street View cars. It was an unusual sight: A white sedan, adorned with a small Google logo on the side, and that roof-mounted camera peering down like an insect eye. We waved.
When the images became available on Google Maps many months later, there was no visible trace of our waving selves; just an empty intersection in that sleepy Dutch city.
In fact, most images you see on Google Street View seem strangely devoid of life. This is particularly obvious in the work of Jacqui Kenny, an artist who goes by the name of The Agoraphobic Traveler.
Held back by anxieties and a fear of crowded spaces—the dictionary definition of agoraphobia—, Kenny has chosen to see the world in an unusual fashion: By exploring the image database of Google Street View.
She writes: “I found remote towns and dusty landscapes, vibrant architectural gems, and anonymous people, all frozen in time. I was intrigued by the strange and expansive parallel universe of Street View, and took screen shots to capture and preserve its hidden, magical realms.”
They are very ordinary things; but in such an unusual way and so devoid of life that they seem somehow removed from the reality we experience every day. That is because they are, in a way, removed: In its attempt to photograph most of the planet, Google has effectively turned our surroundings into an enormous photographic tapestry. Their massive picture, free for anyone to roam around in, is entirely devoid of “decisive moments” or carefully chosen frames.
Browsing the imagery, the Agoraphobic Traveler breaks the picture back down, she selects what catches her eye.
Does that make her a curator? A new type of photographer?
In his book ‘Understanding a Photograph’, John Berger wrote that any photograph contains a simple encoded message: “I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.”
The Agoraphobic Traveler may not be behind the camera, but I would argue that she nevertheless engages in photography: Her pictures tells us that a particular sight is worth recording—even if it has previously been recorded by Google.
What makes the shots so memorable is how they present the world. As Google shoots during daytime, all pictures are naturally filled with light, and since the insect-eye cameras have a unique vantage point, all photos are wide-angle shots taken from the same height.
The genius in these pictures therefore doesn’t stem from technical skill, but from what photographer Sergio Larraín has described as the game of “organizing the rectangle”. The Agoraphobic Traveler has selected empty streets and white walls, free-standing buildings and wide plains.
Perhaps there’s a correlation between her fear of crowded spaces and the tendency to select such open spaces. Google obscures the faces of anyone they capture, so none of the people we see can be identified, giving the images an uncanny sense of isolation.
When I contrast these shots with the way I see the world, I feel like they depict a dystopia. A strange land where an unforgiving sun always beats down and people perpetually turn away. If I hadn’t encountered that car myself, I would have trouble believing that the pictures are taken in our world.
But this way, I can’t stop looking.
Interested in seeing more Street View Portraits? Check out the site of The Agoraphobic Traveler for an extended gallery and the opportunity to buy prints of her work—with all proceeds going towards charity.